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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: Nephi, Joseph Smith and biblical motifs

Published: Monday, June 7 2010 7:45 a.m. MDT

When Nephi tells his readers that his family departed into the wilderness, Nephi is writing within the context of people who would have understood some interesting things about the "wilderness." While many modern readers envision a wilderness as forests or jungle, in biblical language, the wilderness refers to the desert.

In the ancient world, the flight of the righteous into the wilderness was a recognized motif. We are all familiar with the Exodus — the mass movement of Israelites under the leadership of Moses — but the same pattern can be found in the histories of other Jewish desert groups such as the followers of John the Baptist, and the community that lived at Qumran and are responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Apostle John wrote of the same theme in the Book of Revelation when he compared the church to a woman who flees into the wilderness (see Rev. 12:6), and the early Jews believed that the Ten Tribes were lead away into the wilderness where they would not be molested. Even the Latter-day Saint pioneers fit within this motif.

As LDS researcher Ben McGuire has pointed out, when Nephi wrote about their journey, he intentionally "likened" their flight to the exodus pattern found in their scriptures. He knew his people would recognize the pattern and underscored the fact that this was a new foundational narrative for this particular branch of Israel (see "Nephi and Goliath: A Case Study of Literary Allusion in the Book of Mormon").

As McGuire explained elsewhere, it's also "worth noting that in the departure from Jerusalem, we get a moment when Lehi as Moses transitions to Nephi as Moses. That event occurs when Lehi murmurs — at that moment, Nephi has become the spiritual leader." The exodus pattern is repeated later in the Book of Mormon again as the Nephites arrive in the New World but are driven out by their warring brothers.

When Lehi received his revelation to flee Jerusalem it began with a vision that included a pillar of fire. Following this vision, Lehi returned home, exhausted, and while lying on his bed received another vision of God on his throne (1 Nephi 1:6-17). LDS scholar Blake Ostler has shown that a strong case can be made showing that the elements in 1 Nephi "conforms precisely" to an ancient literary pattern found in other ancient Jewish documents (such as the pseudepigrapha)—documents unknown in Joseph Smith's day ("The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form-Critical Analysis").

According to Ostler, the ascension motif exhibited in Lehi's vision includes the following elements found in the ancient pattern: 1) The Historical Introduction, 2) The Intercessory Prayer, 3) The Divine Confrontation, 4) Reaction, 5) The Throne-Theopany (or vision of God), 6) The Descensus (the Heavenly Council), 7) The Heavenly Book, 8) The Qedussa (angelic songs), 9) The Commission, and 10) The Rejection and Reassurance.

Joseph Smith, notes Ostler, "was reared in an era of intense apocalyptic fervor and spiritual experience," which resulted in "the publication of literally hundreds of conversion experiences and visions of God…." If Joseph were simply writing fiction, he would likely have drawn on such stories and we should be able to find "numerous accounts in nineteenth-century literature resembling the theophany-commission pattern in 1 Nephi." But this is not what we find. Ostler writes:

"In point of fact, however, the sole account in the literature of nineteenth-century America conforming in any significant detail to the ancient literary pattern uncovered by a thorough, though perhaps not an exhaustive, search of such visions is the account in 1 Nephi 1" (pg., 84).

Ostler points out that anyone who claims that Joseph created Lehi's story as a fictional narrative must be prepared to explain the following details: 1) The "call form" found in Lehi's ascension narrative is not found in 19th-century literature; 2) the author of 1 Nephi was obviously aware of the ancient call narrative based on the sequence and placement of the account in 1 Nephi, and 3) the author had access to the ancient call pattern as evidenced by the "essential motifs, formulaic language, and completeness of the throne-theophany and commission pattern."

And while Ostler acknowledges that these patterns may be detected in part in the Bible, these patterns were not obvious until recently scholarly endeavors explored for such patterns.

"If the scholars of Joseph Smith's own day were ignorant of the call form, what are the chances that he (Joseph Smith) could have detected the essential pattern, isolated and deleted all Babylonian influences, and included in his version elements that were present only in the yet unknown pseudepigrapha?" (pg. 87).

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